CLEVELAND -- As Alejandro Bedoya slowly walked toward the team bus, it was evident that his day's work had come at a physical cost. "I got whacked on that first assist, so my ankle is feeling it," he said.
But there was a payoff, too. Bedoya, operating as the U.S. team's box-to-box midfielder, set up goals for Joe Corona and Kelyn Rowe, plays that proved critical in the Americans' 3-0 win over Nicaragua on Saturday night. The result enabled the U.S. to finish the first round of the Gold Cup atop Group B, edging out Panama, which defeated Martinique 3-0 earlier in the day, on the goals-scored tiebreaker.
"It was alright," Bedoya said in assessing his own play. "I tried to find spaces in that position, that No. 8 role. I enjoy it when I try to get free in between the lines and cause their back line trouble. I'm always going to be the second runner to try to break them down, and I think I was able to do that at times. And I got two assists, so not bad."
Bedoya won't get a chance to build on his performance in next week's quarterfinal, which will take place in his current home city of Philadelphia. He and his wife, Beatrice, are expecting their second child, so he's being released from the Gold Cup squad.
"As much as I would have loved to have stayed, I'm welcoming my new love to this world," he said. "I'm looking forward to that."
Bedoya is a player who has long divided opinion. He has always been a conscientious, two-way player, but some fans and pundits have made it clear they prefer a more dynamic attacking presence on the field. Competing against the likes of Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson, it can be hard to argue.
And so far during Bruce Arena's second stint in charge, Bedoya has found minutes tough to come by. While he has appeared nine times since Arena took over, six of those have been as a substitute, and Saturday's match marked the first time he had played the full 90 minutes.
Bedoya has long taken such criticism in stride and remains as confident as ever in his play. Is he a starter when the full team gets together? At this stage, probably not. But his experience, defense and versatility still make him a valuable presence on the squad.
"I've been a national teamer under three different coaches. I must be doing something right," he said. "Everybody has got their cup of tea, and whatever. Whenever I step between those white lines, I always do my best for the team. I know I've got the attributes and the ability. My game speaks for itself. Some don't like it, some do."
Among those who do is Arena, who said those calling for Bedoya to be dropped are "pretty stupid." Teammate Dax McCarty showed his appreciation as well.
"[Bedoya is] a glue guy, he's a guy that you want on the field, he's a guy that you want in your team because he does all the little things that make your team better," McCarty said. "He wins second balls, he's really clever with his movement, he's really clever with his passing. He makes the right runs. And defensively, he's really solid."
Bedoya provided some valuable leadership as well. McCarty said before the match he felt that there was some tension within the side as players pondered what might be their last shot at breaking into the national team during this World Cup cycle. Bedoya said he felt that vibe as well, and did what he could to settle his teammates' nerves.
"I think throughout the games, I've sensed a little bit some anxiety from some of the guys, the new guys," he said. "It's a tournament, you know? As a captain, I'm not the most vocal guy, but I try to get in there and just try to calm them down and let them enjoy themselves. It was better knowing before what the score needed to be. It gives us some sense of urgency, to put them under pressure early and try to be aggressive at them."
On this day, the U.S. looked like it coped with the game's pressure a bit better than in its previous two group matches. Defensively, the team was more solid and did a better job of applying pressure in the opposition half. Had the U.S. not squandered a pair of penalties -- both were saved by Nicaragua keeper Justo Lorente -- they wouldn't have needed Matt Miazga's late tally with two minutes left to clinch their status as Group B winners.
To be clear, not only was it helpful to know what score was needed to finish out the group stage in first place, but playing the weakest team in the group didn't hurt, either. The U.S. cause was also aided by a red card to Nicaragua defender Luis Copete with five minutes to go and a late injury to Luis Galeano that left Los Pinoleros short-handed when Miazga nodded home Graham Zusi's free kick.
But after struggling for much of the first two games, this group will take whatever steps forward it can muster, no matter how slight. And it can't be forgotten that the Americans ultimately accomplished their mission on the day. Granted, it's not like a switch is flipped and all of a sudden players become immune from pressure. It's something players become more adept at dealing with over time. That process now seems to be moving in more of a positive direction.
"We put a lot of pressure on them, got two penalties that we deserved," McCarty said. "When you don't convert those, it can lead to a little bit of frustration. It can be a punch to the gut. But we just stayed positive. That's what we told the guys. 'Keep going.' And at the end of it all, we got the win that we needed."
And a result that the Americans deserved. The question now is whether they can continue on this path in quarters. With six players being added to the roster, it will almost be a brand-new team that will take the field. But for those that remain, a boost in confidence has been generated. And as Bedoya exits the tournament, he can feel secure in the knowledge that he did his part.